Editor’s note: This post inaugurates the first in a series of 11 reviews of the recent reboot of Doctor Who, cast with a female doctor.
Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”
Series 11, Episode 1
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Jamie Childs
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Sharon D. Clarke and Samuel Oatley
Original Broadcast 7 October 2018 (63 minutes)
Jodie Whittaker has arrived as the Thirteenth Doctor, and she is magnificent.
When Doctor Who returned to our television screens in 2005, no one predicted the tidal wave of enthusiasm it would loose into our globalized popular culture, least of all the BBC’s executive board (led by the indomitable Jane Tranter, the network’s then-Controller of Drama), the program’s cast (led by the fabulous Christopher Eccleston, in the role of the newly regenerated Ninth Doctor), and the crackerjack production team (led by Russell T. Davies, one of the great writer-producers of our era). These people worked tirelessly to revive a science-fiction series that, in its original incarnation, had produced a record-setting 26 full seasons (or series, as the Brits call them) that, beginning in 1963, amassed a fervent following in the United Kingdom, but went fallow after BBC Managing Director Michael Grade cancelled the travels of the Seventh Doctor (wonderfully played by Sylvester McCoy) in 1989.
Then began what that group of dedicated fans known as Whovians (yes, I am a card-carrying member) calls the Wilderness Years, running from 1989 to 2005. The adventures of the Doctor—a two-hearted extraterrestrial Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time in his ship, the TARDIS (short for Time and Relative Dimension in Space)—continued in novels published by Virgin Books, several of them authored by future New Who television writers, most notably showrunners Russell T. Davies and his replacement, Steven Moffat. When the BBC and America’s Fox Television tried to resurrect the series in 1996 with a backdoor-pilot television film titled, aptly enough, Doctor Who, they hired Paul McGann to play the title role in a muddled story that, despite McGann’s marvelous work as the Eighth Doctor, wasn’t enough to convince the two networks to greenlight a full season. That’s where Big Finish Productions enters the tale, launching in late 1998 a series of Doctor Who audio plays voiced by McGann, McCoy, and their three predecessors (Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, and Sixth Doctor Colin Baker), along with many other performers who had appeared in the classic television program, to keep the Who fires burning.
Then, 2005, the annus mirabilis: Doctor Who was back on the BBC, and better than ever.
Since then, the changing of the guard between one Doctor and his successor has become a major pop-cultural ritual, occasioning sadness, longing, and regret as the actor currently playing the role departs and we watch, through tears, as he regenerates into the next incarnation (to wit, when Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor became David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor in 2005’s “The Parting of the Ways” and Ten became Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in 2010’s “The End of Time,” I felt like I’d lost treasured family members. Ditto for Eleven and Twelve). And he is the operative word since, until now, the Doctor has been played by thirteen actors—all white men, all impressive (including, in a brilliant one-off performance in 2013’s 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor,” John Hurt). Yet, when outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat and the BBC approached Chris Chibnall to take the flagship’s reins, Chibnall—creator of ITV’s crime-drama sensation Broadchurch, writer of five previous New Who episodes, and showrunner of the Who spinoff Torchwood’s first two seasons—insisted that Doctor Thirteen be a woman.
And, to coin a phrase, lives changed. Forever, and for the better.
Chibnall’s inaugural effort as head writer, cheekily titled “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” references Nicholas Roeg’s now-classic 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, but, more prosaically, acknowledges the fact that, when first (and last) we saw the Thirteenth Doctor (in 25 December 2017’s Moffat-penned Christmas episode “Twice Upon a Time”), she—having just regenerated from her Scottish predecessor (Peter Capaldi’s fantastic Twelfth Doctor)—speaks only two words (“Oh, brilliant!” in Whittaker’s native Yorkshire accent) before the TARDIS, flying high above the fields of Sheffield, England, disgorges her. The craft dematerializes as the Thirteenth Doctor flails into space and plunges toward the ground below.
Chibnall, for the uninitiated, wrote the Thirteenth Doctor’s introduction in “Twice Upon a Time.” His decision to throw her out of the Doctor’s beloved timeship before the character can find her footing is the perfect metaphor for announcing that new directions lie ahead. Now that the Thirteenth Doctor’s landed, we can repeat, as we do every time the lead character changes, “all that’s old is new again.” This mantra also describes every new Doctor, who alters personality just enough to allow the new performer to bring individual quirks, concerns, and insights to the role, while embodying that old Hollywood adage about successful sequels: they must be the same, but different.
Whittaker was worth the ten-month wait. That notion applies to New Who as a whole, but particularly to this long-in-the-coming, female Doctor. Chibnall introduces her alongside four subsidiary characters that, given the episode’s 63-minute running time, he develops in remarkable detail. Good as his writing may be, Chibnall and his team have cast lovely actors in the roles of Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a nineteen-year-old warehouse worker whose YouTube vlog frames the episode’s main story by declaring that “today, I want to talk about the greatest woman I ever met. Smart, funny, caring, special—proper special”; Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), a Sheffield probationary police officer assigned to traffic duty who longs for more responsibility; and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), a retired bus driver married for three years to Grace Sinclair-O’Brien (Sharon D. Clarke), a chemotherapy nurse who’s also Ryan’s grandmother. Yes, Graham is Ryan’s step-grandfather, but Ryan still hasn’t warmed to Graham’s presence in his (or his “nan’s”) life.
But the Doctor’s entrance portends enormous changes, which occur—thanks to an extraordinary coincidence engineered by Chibnall’s authorial hand—just as an extraterrestrial warrior named T’zim-Sha (mockingly pronounced “Tim Shaw” by the Doctor) arrives in Sheffield to kill randomly selected people in a ritual hunt that characterizes his militant species (the Stenza) and that, in an extraordinary stroke of bad luck for Shaw, offends the Doctor’s moral sensibilities. This aspect may be the episode’s weakest element, with the Stenza functioning as Who’s version of the Predator alien, although T’zim-Sha, played with menacing brio by Samuel Oatley, is more successful than his cinematic counterpart, particularly as seen in Shane Black’s regrettable and embarrassing The Predator (2018). Shaw’s hunt is memorable for two reasons only: he removes a single tooth from each human corpse that he then attaches to his own features (in a terrific prosthetic makeup job by Claire Pritchard-Jones and Charlie Bluett) while his body temperature is so cold that he freeze-burns his victims’ faces.
Yet this plot is simply a clothesline onto which Chibnall hangs all the elements longtime fans expect of a post-regeneration episode: 1) the Doctor—dazed by the experience of becoming an entirely new person—takes time to emerge as a fully formed character, 2) the Doctor, despite temporary amnesia, neutralizes an alien threat that is equal parts fascinating and forgettable, 3) the Doctor meets new friends and companions along the way, 4) the Doctor spends most of the episode clothed in the previous incarnation’s costume before choosing new threads, and 5) death remains ever-present despite the sometimes absurd shenanigans.
This episode’s many strengths—excellent performances by all concerned, beautiful cinematography by Denis Crosan, outstanding direction by Jamie Childs, and a moody electronic score by incoming composer Segun Akinola (taking over from the great Murray Gold)—outshine its weaknesses, particularly the Stenza storyline. This narrative strand remains straightforwardly simple, which at least allows the characters to take center stage and, in the space of one hour, to breathe, to grow, and to become real people with human flaws and complications.
This outing’s largest regret, for me at least, involves Grace, who falls to her death from a tall construction crane after saving Ryan and Yaz from the Stenza attack (in a development that recalls, coincidentally or not, the Fourth Doctor’s exit in 1981’s “Logopolis”). Chibnall pulls no punches here, alerting the viewer to the fact that Doctor Who’s nominal status as family entertainment does not preclude the most serious themes from emerging (Russell T. Davies did the same in New Who’s premiere episode, 2005’s “Rose,” by killing numerous people when the Autons, that segment’s extraterrestrial threat, rampage through London), but Clarke plays her supporting role with such irrepressible joie de vivre—at one point delightedly asking husband Graham, right before taking the fight to Tim Shaw, “Is it wrong to be enjoying this?”—that, had she become the Thirteenth Doctor’s sole companion, loud applause would be the only appropriate response.
Instead, Chibnall kills her, but the political implications of sacrificing a black woman so that her white husband can continue into future episodes rankles, particularly after the many necessary conversations about how Whittaker’s casting as the first woman to play the Doctor is a significant victory for onscreen diversity in our reactionary political times. Indeed it is, although “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” only acknowledges this gender change twice, in throwaway comments designed to keep events moving at a quick pace. Emily Asher-Perrin, in “Because We’re Friends Now,” her insightful Tor.com review of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” states the matter best by writing, “Knowing, as fans generally do, that she wasn’t set to be one of the main companions for the season, I was worried that Grace might die when we met her at the start of the episode. But then I thought, no, they couldn’t do that.”1 Why not? Asher-Perrin tells herself (as I did) while watching, “On the very first episode showcasing a female Doctor, they wouldn’t kill another woman, an older woman, a woman of color, just as we were coming back into the fold. An incredible woman in her own right, a woman who makes it clear that she should be the companion, they wouldn’t do that to her or to us.”2
Yet they do. Asher-Perrin also recognizes how Grace’s death is cheapened by functioning as a life lesson that helps her grandson and her husband grow into proper Who companions:
Women do not have to be snuffed out to make room for male development, women are not damned training wheels. There were other ways this could have gone down, and I miss this woman already. I miss everything that she deserved to experience and all the adventures she’ll never get to have. Perhaps something miraculous will happen—Doctor Who is known for its share of revivals and reunions—but I’m not giving them any points until I see it.3
I fully agree. Grace’s exit is too neat, too tidy, and far too reminiscent of those cloying Back-to-School Specials that dotted American and British television during the 1970s and 1980s. Let us hope that Series 11’s oncoming episodes revisit Grace to treat her passing in more adult fashion than its premiere does.
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” as such, is an imperfect—yet auspicious—debut for this next era of New Who, encompassing all the ups and downs that have characterized the BBC’s 55-year-old behemoth since it premiered in 1963. Like its namesake series, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” dares to be serious and silly, fun and frustrating, mature and juvenile, happy and sad all at the same time. That is a delicate balancing act for Chibnall’s script to maintain, and if the Stenza storyline and Grace’s death suffer by comparison with everything else packed into this exceptionally busy hour, viewers at least have Oatley’s fierce performance as Tim Shaw and Graham’s touching eulogy to Grace, gorgeously played by Bradley Walsh, to sustain them in these lesser moments.
But, at the last, as in all Doctor Who post-regeneration episodes, how well the new lead actor plays the Doctor will forever stick in our collective memory. Jodie Whittaker, on this score, is a smashing success: effervescent, fabulous, fantastic, brilliant, and a dozen other superlatives that I won’t list here. The moment when she tells Tim Shaw, “A bit of adrenaline, a dash of outrage, and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am: I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe” is so terrific that I rose from my armchair to cheer.
So yes, like Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi before her, it’s love at first sight. Whittaker is a superb addition to Doctor Who’s revolving-door protagonist, and, as far as I can tell, the best person alive to shatter the program’s glass ceiling. One of the world’s great working actors gives a tremendous performance in her (yes, her!) first appearance as one of British television’s most famous heroes, and we now get to enjoy watching Whittaker as the Doctor for the foreseeable future—three series at least (or until 2020), if tradition holds.
I do not know about you, but speaking strictly for myself, that is high cotton.
- Emily Asher-Perrin, “Because We’re Friends Now: Doctor Who, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” 7 October 2018, com, https://www.tor.com/2018/10/07/because-were-friends-now-doctor-who-the-woman-who-fell-to-earth/.